Greg and Zanna watch a landmark movie about a landmark moment.
Te Matakite o Aotearoa is a perfect time capsule - not only of New Zealand's 1970s cultural climate, infrastructure, stubbies and station wagons but of documentary film-making. Director Geoff Steven was all hopped up on cinema verite inspiration - the cutting-edge documentary style of the era - and nearly 50 years later it's proved to be a wise decision. I can imagine a version of this film following the 1975 Māori Land March in which Steven, a Pākeha man, smears himself and his ideas all over the film's narrative of the march, but instead he steps back and watches.
It's an inspiring film, featuring familiar faces like Eva Rickard, Dame Whina Cooper and many more I can't name, because while their faces are familiar there are no on-screen titles. Steven's commitment to his verite vision might've gone a bit too far because titles could've really helped me out. Even the end credits are remarkably bare. There's a voice-over at the beginning that may or may not belong to Tama Poata, who knows? A stirring poem is performed - "I need a haversack, who will lend me one?" - but by who? I scoured the internet, Greg scoured the internet. He found it was by Hone Tuwhare but it shouldn't have been that hard.
Absent exposition aside, taking the road with Te Roopu o te Matakite is very moving. Their conviction, their mana and their pain at the loss of their land is felt strongly throughout the film. I was particularly moved by a kuia on the bus who told a story about her mother's dying wish that she repair and rebuild her house on their land and the land of their ancestors in the Far North. She spoke in English but frequently fell back into te reo, when she couldn't find the words in her second language. When she rebuilt the house, "Town and Country" called her in for a meeting and told her that she must remove it because it was not her whānau land at all any more. That was 50 years ago.
What that woman was marching for specifically: industry and Māori kura for the people of Northland and the retention of te reo place names. What they were all marching for: an end to the ongoing confiscation of Māori land that they believed would result in the displacement of Tangata Whenua, a loss of spiritual and physical connection to the land of their ancestors, and nowhere to call home or return to in their final days, the repercussions of which they believed would be felt for generations. They really were Te Roopu o te Matakite - the People with Foresight.
This is a monumental New Zealand film, both for the power of the event it recorded and the way it recorded it. It was directed by a young Geoff Steven, who would go on to become a New Zealand screen legend; and shot by a young Leon Narbey, who would not only go on to become a screen legend but who, in a beautiful feat of symmetry, was director of photography on the hot new biopic, Whina, released this week.
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Steven had recently formed a film-makers' co-operative called Alternative Cinema and was making a lot of experimental films. He would later be described by an academic as representing "the arrival of the hippie counterculture" in the local film-making scene. It's hard to imagine in today's risk-averse broadcast TV environment, dominated as it is by cooking, abs and asses, but this experimental documentary, speculatively made by a hippie, about a slow-moving protest led by an 80-year-old woman, any outcome of which would almost certainly occur long after the documentary made it to screen, was not only commissioned by TV2, but aired in prime time. As Steven says in an article he wrote about the movie for NZ on Screen, he didn't even know if anyone was going to turn up for the march. This is the power of people willing to take a risk.
The crew embedded with the marchers for the entirety of the hikoi, travelling the length of the North Island, staying with the marchers, eating with them, talking with them and occasionally recording them. Over that landmark month in New Zealand history they shot … four hours of film. Four hours! A crew making a documentary today would be embarrassed if they woke up on the second day of filming with only four hours of footage. Some of this is down to the arrival of digital technology, but still, four hours! Over a month!
The footage that made the final one-hour cut is powerful, beautifully shot, evocative and languid, with extended sequences of people walking, driving, performing waiata and haka. Interviews are long and naturalistic, with minimal editorial intervention. It captures the moment without trying to say what it meant. As a result, it has not aged badly; it has hardly aged at all.
The first viewer comment on the movie's NZ on Screen page reads, in its entirety: "very helpful but boring". I love the straightforwardness of that review and have some sympathy for its point, but it's not quite right. Like the wheels of justice, the movie is often slow, but like the fight for justice, it's never boring.
Te Matakite o Aotearoa - The Māori Land March is streaming now on NZ on Screen.